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Japanese-American author reflects on SLO's forgotten Japantown, holds writing workshop

San Luis Obispo's Japantown circa-1946.
Courtesy of Shizue Seigel
San Luis Obispo's Japantown circa-1946.

Japanese-American author Shizue Seigel has come back to the Central Coast decades after her family was pushed out by anti-Asian immigration laws.

She said she is on a journey to expand the land’s historical narrative by holding writing workshops for creatives of all backgrounds to tell their stories.

Seigel is a third-generation Japanese-American. Her family lived in SLO County when the California Alien Land Law was first being introduced. The Alien Land Law was discriminatory legislation that prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land in California.

In the early 1900s her family owned about half of San Luis Obispo’s JapanTown and a 140-acre produce farm on the north end of Shell Beach. But later, tragedy struck the family.

Seigel’s grandfather died a couple days after getting in a car accident. His medical report says he died of Pneumonia, but it's been assumed by family members that he died due to internal bleeding from the car accident.

After his death, the produce farm was sold to a new landowner. Then rent was doubled, forcing Seigel’s grandmother and her family off of the produce farm.

A map of San Luis Obispo's Japantown in 1940.
Courtesy of Shizue Seigel
A map of San Luis Obispo's Japantown in 1940.

Later in the 1940’s Seigel's mother acquired the family's property in SLO’s Japantown. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Seigel says her mother's ownership didn’t last long.

Seigel says following Pearl Harbor many Japanese immigrants in the area were picked up by the FBI and arrested. When the family heard all Japanese people in Western California were being detained, they decided to leave and sell their property in JapanTown.

Seigel said her mother never got over losing their family’s land.

“She was born there, she was raised there. So her sense of place and land and community, it was a Paradise Lost,” Seigel said.

Seigel said even after being forced out of San Luis Obispo County, her family would still visit every so often. Her own children even learned how to swim in the Avila Hot Springs.

She now lives in San Francisco, but Seigel started a writing workshop in San Luis Obispo to tell her family’s story and encourage others to tell theirs too.

“For the last seven years it's been really purposeful. We all have so many stories. One of my favorite things in the world to do is just talk to strangers on the street. And find out who they are, what their background is, what they enjoy doing,” Seigel said.

Her writing workshop will feature three other writers of different backgrounds, including Jaime Cortez — a Chicano writer based in Watsonville who tells stories of migrant farm workers and their families.

“His book, Gordo, is sort of based on his personal experience growing up sharecropping in San Juan Bautista. And then when he started hitting puberty, he started noticing, why am I looking at guys more than girls, what's wrong with me? So actually a lot of his art has to do with empowering positive images of the LGBTQIA community,” Seigel said.

Seigel’s writing workshop will be held in San Luis Obispo’s Dallidet Gardens this Sunday at 1PM, with free admission. More information is at writenowsf.com.

Gabriela Fernandez came to KCBX in May of 2022 as a general assignment reporter, and became news director in December of 2023. She graduated from Sacramento State with a BA in Political Science. During her senior year, she interned at CapRadio in their podcast department, and later worked for them as an associate producer on the TahoeLand podcast. When she's not writing or editing news stories, she loves to travel, play tennis and take her 140-lbs dog, Atlas, on long walks by the coast.
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